Cycling the Stans, Part 2 of 3: Korut, Kumis, and kindness in Kyrgyzstan / by Rachel Banfield

Kyrgyzstan was awesome before I even got there.

If Kyrgyzstan ever needs am ambassador, they should hire this guy: 

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Absolutely determined that the passengers in his car (myself and a Russian woman) become huge fans of his country, our driver for the Almaty-Bishkek border crossing trip wanted to make sure that we saw all that Kyrgyzstan had to offer. 

So, despite heavy traffic at the border meaning we were on a pretty tight schedule to get to the Bishkek airport, we made a number of 'essential' stops. 

Such as one to see this monument, which proved that it's not just in Kazakhstan where you can find newly married couples all in one area. 

We giggled our way around the city, me with my non-existant Russian and they with zero English, stopping to take a range of selfies, 

before continuing on to this statue, 

where some randoms now have a photo of me standing in front of the statue doing that wonderful pose.

We pulled over for lunch, in a restaurant where little machines sprayed mist at diners,

 (photo by our driver)

(photo by our driver)

and I tucked into my second plov in 2 days. 

After this wonderful surprise multi-hour tour of Bishkek, it was a sad parting with my hilarious new friends when I finally arrived at Bishkek's weirdly enormous domestic airport, 

On the short flight south, someone's phone rang multiple times during the safety briefing. No one owned up.

Not until it rang again mid-flight. At that point a little old lady in traditional Kyrgyz clothes answered it, chatted away for about ten minutes, and then hung up. 

Despite this little breach of flight protocol, I arrived safe and sound Kyrgyzstan's second city Osh, complete with a battered and breaking Charm of Africa bag and a soggy bike box.  

As I entered the hotel lobby it was yet another epic reunion as I spotted Celia. Previously my hiking buddy in Scotland where we would often escape to the hills for a vigorous hike before returning in time for a lecture on international law ...

Celia would now be the other half of the Pamir Pedal cycling duo. 

She was, apparently, a little concerned that her bike might get damaged on the flight... 

It wasn't.

But that didn't make the bike assembling any easier... as evidenced by the 'bike explosion' photo below.

But what did help was befriending a lovely Norwegian cycle touring couple at breakfast (which, I might add, shows that you should linger for second breakfast in any buffet-like scenario). 

Given that Celia had decided that I, as the cycling touring 'expert' of the group, was in charge of bike mechanics, Arne's arrival at our door with a wrench and loads of bike expertise was basically Christmas. 

 Clear evidence of which one of us was actually involved in the bike fixing process...

Clear evidence of which one of us was actually involved in the bike fixing process...

Our happiness was short-lived when we discovered my pump didn't work on Celia's tyres. It was a stressful dash to the market before it closed, where we wound our way down back alleys following endless conflicting directions, before finding this glorious golden beast. 

And it worked! Well, close enough. 

So, with vaguely pumped up tyres we were ready to roll. The Pamir Pedal had begun! 

Our planned 8am start didn't quite happen, and it was after 11am when we waved goodbye to the nice hotel guard, 

and headed out into the heat. 

The temperature reading on my GPS climbed up to 44 degrees as we left the city, riding constantly uphill. 

A watermelon stop was a welcome break, 

as was stopping to talk to Bek, 

who was herding some of Kyrgyzstan's famous big bummed sheep up and over the distant hills. 

We stopped for lunch, setting up 'shop' in the shade, 

and moving on after a very weird Kiwi cyclist turned up from the opposite direction.

I spent the next few hours alternating between trying to convince Celia that all Kiwis weren't that weird and trying to convince myself that this cycling trip was as bad an idea as it was currently feeling. 

We rode up,

up, 

and up.  

The heat didn't let up and I thought my tyres might melt. Something which at that point, I told myself, wouldn't be the worst thing. 

I was distracted briefly by amazing horsemanship, such as this young boy absolutely hurtling past, 

and this guy, weaving his way up the side of a cliff.

The sun was setting as we finally reached our destination, 

And my feeling of reaching the patch of cow pat covered ground that would be our campsite,

is best summed up by Celia's face. 

After a huge feast cooked up by the campstove culinary genius that is Celia and a failed attempt to wash in a stream about 3cm deep, we climbed inside our tent. I lay awake, wearing all my clothes and still shivering, with a pounding heat-induced headache thumping away into the night. 

I lay there thinking that perhaps people's comments when they heard about this trip, including "That sounds hellish" were actually quite accurate.  

But the next morning, as we awoke to a beautiful day and strong legs and set off into towards the mountains, 

I fell in love with cycle touring all over again. 

And, really, with views like this, 

who wouldn't? 

While the korut (dried up balls of salty yoghurt which sit out in the sun all day) weren't exactly sending us racing back for more, 

 (photo by Celia) 

(photo by Celia) 

by day 2, Kyrgyzstan had won us over yet again with a combination of warm and friendly people,

and incredible landscapes. 

A severe bout of food poisoning the next day wasn't enough to stop me enjoying the ride, 

I mean, it just meant even more roadside 'view stops'. 

although it did make politely forcing down the generously offered kumis (fermented horse milk) in the bottle below extra gag-worthy. 

It was only fair I suppose, given that Celia, as the resident gluten-eater, was taking one for the team in eating the stale fried bread dipped in horse butter...

The lollies, on the other hand, were a welcome treat. 

And kept us going until we reached a riverside area where we pitched our tent. 

I can't decide which thing was the most amazing about that campsite, but it's a close tie between eating solid food again or emerging from the tent to a sky like this... 

Although Celia might argue that it was the coffee the next morning...

or having clean clothes. 

We knew from past blogs that the next day would be tough. And we weren't wrong. 

Luckily, you can't help but feel triumphant when riding through these arches. 

We'd been warned that, even worse than the perpetual uphill, the danger was the tendency for kids in village along this route where kids to throw things at cyclists. We spent the day looking out for rock wielding terrors emerging from the trees. 

Instead, we found that people were wonderful. Like this guy, 

who asked for a photo and was then joined by a family member, and then another one, and another and soon I was sitting on my bike chatting to this beautiful family group. 

Although Celia did have to deal with this fearsome roadblock... 

We rode up towards our first real mountain pass, stopping to dunk our heads in the river,

and continued to climb. 

I rounded a corner a few hours later to find this sight.

Well of course. Why wouldn't Celia be standing 3000m up a mountain pass holding the biggest watermelon I've seen?

It was no surprise to hear that the watermelon was yet another example of Kyrgyz kindness. 

She made a pretty good dent in it, I have to say. Especially as I, on another 'Pamir belly' food-free day, couldn't help out much. 

Champion. 

The switchbacks were endless, and with every push of my pedal my brain went through the list of heavy items that I had chosen to bring. 6kg of camera gear seemed pretty stupid at this stage... particularly when some of the switchbacks were so steep that I had to lean forward to stop my bike doing wheelies. 

But we finally made it to the top, where we used our final bits of energy for this celebratory photo. 

Only to find, after enjoying a well earned zoom downhill,

past lucious green fields full of grazing yaks and horses, 

that there was a sneaky second pass! 

Noooooooooooooooooooooo! Not cool, Kyrgyzstan, not cool. 

It was with lead-filled legs that we arrived in Sary Tash. Far from the lively little town that we had dreamed of as we inched our way up and over the mountain, Sary Tash was one of the creepiest places I've been to. With two main roads, very few people out and about, and the rare few who were had clearly enjoyed one too many vodkas. 

But it had beds, and Celia, who speaks excellent Russian, even managed to find us somewhere with a shower. What a treat! Well, it was for me. Poor Celia, going first, had to chose between remaining a gross sweaty cyclist or being scalded by boiling water. It is a sign of how rank we were that she chose the latter. Ah well, skin grows back right? 

We settled in for the night, looking forward to having a rest day. 

After 4 days of uphill riding in the roasting sun, two nights spent camping in the cold, 3 mountain passes and an array of food poisoning, some rest was seriously needed! 

With the mountains signalling the border visible from our front door, we knew that we would need fresh legs for the brutal ride into Tajikistan. 

But it couldn't be that hard, right?